‘Jesus was here’
Nestled on the fringes of civilization is a small village in the Athwatoo block of Bandipora district, North Kashmir. Based on a hill, self-sustaining with its own primary school, grocery shop and a police station, the village looks nothing out of the ordinary. But this remote hamlet’s claim to fame is nothing short of incredible: This is the place where, some claim, Jesus was last seen.
The life and death of Jesus Christ is a story with many versions, among experts and commoners alike. A lot of these versions indicate a possibility that Jesus was in India for a long duration; some even say he died here.
Surrounded by a village of nearly 600 houses and a population of about 5,000, an isolated spot here stands amidst dense pine and fir trees. The eerie spot features a make-shift hut adorned with prayer flags. The place is a popular prayer area for locals. “The spot marks the last sighting place of Jesus Christ, according to some believers,” says Major Anshuman Bhadauria of the Madras Regiment posted at the site as of April, 2012.
If legend is to be believed, Jesus survived the crucification and travelled to India. This theory lends support to another tale that marks a spot in Srinagar as the final resting place of Jesus Christ. (Scroll down to ‘What’s inside Roza Bal’) Interestingly, experts say that a period stretching from 12 to 30 years in Jesus’ life is undocumented in the New Testament, apart from a single statement which says: “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and man.”
The theory that Jesus spent these 18 missing years in India was first triggered when some manuscripts were reportedly found by a Russian journalist Nicolas Notovitch in a Buddhist monastery in India. In his book ‘The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ’, he claims to have read secret manuscripts that talked about a certain 14-year-old wandering prophet ‘Isa’. A similar belief appears in another book- ‘Jesus in India’ and a few documentaries. These theories also point to a resemblance between Buddha’s teachings and miracles; and those of Jesus. A few books, articles and a BBC documentary on the topic may not have confirmed the legend, but enough debates and doubts have been created on the subject.
The locals of the village, however, insist that the Jesus sighting story is a sham. “This is the resting place of Musa, follower of Dargiz Sahab. He stayed here, on this spot, for 3-4 years,” says Anjum Nisar, a teacher at a local primary school. The Sarpanch, Ghulam Rasool Lone, nods firmly in agreement. There is a grave marked at the spot which, as we debate legends, is cleaned and prayed upon by a local woman.
Locals come to the spot often to pray and follow a ritual: they tie pieces of cloth to trees in the area to ask for favours and untie them when a favour is granted. The grains they offer in return attract ravens and monkeys to the spot. These creatures only add to the spooky feeling of the place.
Athwatoo would have made a great tourist location just for its scenic beauty, had it not been for the immense historical significance attached to it. Religious beliefs, contradicting ones to that, steal the show in a location truly made for the Gods. The place, however, witnessed bloodshed over a decade ago, when a group of four foreigners’ trip turned tragic. “The foreigners were abducted from Bandipore by militants and beheaded here,” Major Bhadauria says. The area was a militant hotspot until a few years ago.
However, things have changed in the Valley. Now, the tourism department is looking at promoting Bandipora and specifically Athwatoo as a travel destination. A government tourism centre, overlooking the Madmati river, is nearing completion and roads are being built for welcoming tourists this season – a far cry from the situation which existed in the early nineties when the town was ravaged by militancy. Locals say some private hotels are also being built very close by at Vewan which will offer travellers more options than the one offered by the solitary hotel in the vicinity right now.
If you want to travel to the legendary spot, the easiest way is to hire a cab from Gulsand Chowk in Bandipora – about 14 kilometres away. A long winding road lands you at the village. Next are two rickety wooden bridges over the wild Madmati. Ask around for ‘Musa’s grave’ and locals will be happy to guide you. A 10-minute trek by the banks of the river takes you to your destination. Follow the colourful prayer clothes and the eerie cries of ravens.
Getting there: Take a cab from Gulsand Chowk for Athwatoo. The charge is about Rs.500 for a drop and Rs.800 for a return trip (It is better to go for a return journey with a planned stoppage time of at least 2-4 hours). The road ends at Athwatoo village at the tourism centre. Two shaky wooden bridges across the Madmati River and a few meters of walking uphill will lead you to the place. Ask the locals for directions. There are no signs installed (as of April 2012). The place is a haven for adventure tourism.
Where to stay: Harmukh Health Resort, Barnar. There are just two rooms for the taking in this private hotel in the area. Each room costs up to Rs. 800 per day. There is also a common hall which accommodates 50 people and provides just the basic amenities for a night halt- a carpet to rest on and some blankets. The make-shift accommodation would cost one Rs. 70 per day.
Coming up: The government tourism guesthouse being built will have four rooms and one hall. It is also expected to have a common kitchen and a cafeteria.
What’s inside Roza bal?
An unknown shrine located in Khanyar, Srinagar has caught the attention of many after the beliefs surrounding it featured in books and documentaries. Roza Bal is the final resting place of Yuz Asaf, who is believed by many to be none other than ‘Jesus Christ of Nazareth’.
Of course, for that to be true, Jesus would have survived the crucification and travelled to India and died much later than what is officially recorded. That is exactly what this version of his life says. Another mysterious name that appears at the shrine is that of Syed Naseerudin.
The locals do not know the story behind either of the two names mentioned. But they strongly deny the belief about Jesus Christ. They have even got the doors of the shrine closed for tourists and locals alike after attempts were made to uncover the truth.
“A few years ago, a foreign lady came and got the doors opened for some documentary work. Later we heard they were using some machines to dig in and collect samples. We immediately got a complaint filed. You do not do such work at a shrine,” says another local. Since then, even photography and shooting videos outside the shrine have been prohibited.
“The place is being misused to attract tourists,” says Aijaaz. Another local, Mohammad Rafiq, tries to reason how a prophet of the stature of Jesus Christ could be buried in such a place. The locals are trying their best to counter these “man-made stories” about the tomb of Jesus. They have even installed a sign board at the site which reads passages from Quran and the Holy Bible which suggest that Jesus is with God, not on earth.
A BBC documentary about the alignment of graves and the footmarks preserved in the shrine created widespread interest in the place. The footmarks revealed markings which resembled those a man would get if crucified with nails. But locals do not seem to buy the rationale. They are convinced it is an Islamic shrine and has nothing to do with Jesus. “We educate the tourists and bust their myth about the shrine,” says another one, concerned about the legend that led us there.
Only a sneak-peek at the graves is currently allowed from a window which opens in an adjoining by-lane. Tourists are inundated with opinions from locals about what the shrine does not contain. In the end, this only adds to the mystery of Roza Bal and Jesus Christ’s connection with India.
Caution: The locals are not tolerant to flouting of the No-Photography rule at the shrine.